Monday, December 5, 2016

Delight – Ephrem of Edessa (the Syrian) on Paradise

Before Lothlorien or Narnia or Perelandra, there was Ephrem of Edessa's vision of Paradise.

Ephrem of Edessa (also known as "the Syrian") lived from around 306 to 373 and was one of the great theologians and hymn writers of the early church. He wrote in Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic (the language Jesus spoke), and thus is not nearly as well-known in the western church as he should be. His Hymns on Paradise is a cycle of 15 hymns ranging in length from 11 to 31 verses (think of that next time you are tempted to complain about singing all the verses of a hymn in church).

Here is a selection:

1. In the world there is struggle,
in Eden, a crown of glory.
At our resurrection
both earth and heaven will God renew,
liberating all creatures,
granting them paschal joy, along with us.
Upon our mother Earth, along with us,
did he lay disgrace
when he laid on her, with the sinner, the curse;
so, together with the just, will he bless her too;
this nursing mother, along with her children,
shall He who is Good renew.

Response: Blessed is He who, in his Paradise,
gives joy to our gloom

2. The evil one mixed his cup,
proffering its bitterness to all;
in everyone’s path, he set his snares,
for everyone has he spread out his net;
he has caused tares to spring up
in order to choke the good seed.
But in His glorious Paradise
He who is Good
Will sweeten their bitter trials,
Their crowns he will make great;
because they have borne their crosses
He will escort them into Eden.

3. Should you wish
to climb a tree,
with its lower branches
it will provide steps before your feet,
eager to make you recline
in its bosom above,
on the couch of its upper branches.
So arranged is the surface of these branches,
bent low and cupped
–while yet dense with flowers–
that they serve as a protective womb
for whoever rests there.

4. Who has ever beheld such a banquet
in the very bosom of a tree,
with fruit of every savor
ranged for the hand to pluck?
Each type of fruit in due sequence approaches,
Each awaiting its turn:
fruit to eat,
and fruit to quench the thirst;
to rinse the hands there is dew,
and leaves to dry them after
–a treasure store that lacks nothing,
Whose Lord is rich in all things.

5. Around the trees the air is limpid
as the saints recline;
below them are blossoms,
above them fruit;
fruits serve as their sky,
flowers as their earth.
Who has ever heard
or seen
a cloud of fruits providing shade
for the head,
or a garment of flowers
spread out beneath the feet?

6. Such is the flowing brook of delights
that, as one tree takes leave of you,
the next one beckons you;
all of them rejoice
that you should partake of the fruit of one
and suck the juice of another,
wash and cleanse yourself
in the dew of yet a third;
anoint yourself with the resin of one
and breath another’s fragrance,
listen to the song of still another.
Blessed is He who gave joy to Adam.
[from hymn IX of Hymns on Paradise, p. 136-138]

More numerous and glorious
than the stars
in the sky that we behold
are the blossoms of that land,
and the fragrance which exhales from it
through divine Grace
is like a physician
sent to heal the ills
of a land that is under a curse;
by its healing breath it cures
the sickness that entered in
through the serpent.
[hymn XI, v. 9]

I enjoy the imagery in the verses above and there are more like them in the cycle of hymns. They remind us that our delight in creation here and now is a foreshadowing of the delight we will know in the New Creation of Paradise. For Ephrem, Paradise is not an escape from this world and physical reality. Rather, it is heaven and earth – along with us  renewed in Easter delight.

For the colors of Paradise are full of joy,
its scents most wonderful,
its beauties most desirable,
and its delicacies glorious.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Mercy – Being by nature born in sinne (or Why Original Sin is a Goodly Doctrine)

In the Gospel lesson assigned for this Sunday, we will hear John the Baptist proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” The call to repentance, set against the paradigm of the kingdom of God, indicates that John thinks there is something fundamentally wrong with the way things are. Jesus repeats the call to repentance in the context of God’s kingdom (Matthew 4:17,  Mark 1:14-15). We will also hear on Sunday Isaiah’s prophetic image of that kingdom. The need for repentance points to our failure to live into God's goodness. It points to the need for change – in our hearts and in how we engage one another. It indicates that there is something wrong with us. We need mercy.

It is the Christian witness that there is something dreadfully wrong with us and the world and that we cannot finally change ourselves. We require deliverance from beyond ourselves. We require salvation from sin which radically infects our hearts and pervades our thoughts and actions. This is the uncomfortable realization that the traditional teaching of “original sin” gets at.

The tendency among some Christians to minimize the radical nature of sin is not very helpful. Nor is it reflective of what Christianity in the Anglican tradition has taught:

What is the inward and spirituall grace [of baptism]?

A death unto sinne, and a new birth unto righteousness: for being by nature born in sinne, and the children of wrath, we are hereby made the children of grace.

That is from the Catechism of the Scottish Prayer Book of 1637. It was according to that Prayer Book that Samuel Seabury, the first bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States, was ordained. It is the Prayer Book on which our Book of Common Prayer is based. The same Catechism is found in the 1559 Book of Common Prayer (the Elizabethan Prayer Book used by Her Majesty as well as Lancelot Andrewes, Richard Hooker, John Donne, and others of the formative period of Anglicanism).

The great Anglican preacher and poet, John Donne, did not hesitate to point to the radical nature of sin. Read A HYMN TO GOD THE FATHER.

William Temple, Anglican theologian and Archbishop of Canterbury during World War 2, wrote,

. . . reason itself as it exists in us in vitiated. We wrongly estimate the ends of life, and give preference to those which should be subordinate, because they have a stronger appeal to our actual, empirical selves . . . It is the spirit which is evil; it is reason which is perverted; it is aspiration itself which is corrupt.

Acknowledging the radical pervasiveness of sin is part of the Anglican tradition.

But, a sort of good news is hidden in the Christian doctrine of sin – even that "awful" doctrine of original sin. Original sin indicates that the way things are is not the way things are meant to be. It affirms that violence, selfishness, and “will to power” are not "natural," but aberrations of God's original intent and goal which precede our fall into complicity with evil. Original sin is a hopeful doctrine because it declares that the way the world is and the way we are is not the way the world or we are meant to be. Though it infects our very nature, sin is not the truest thing about us. And we are not stuck with the sinfulness of our egotism, greed, violence, and unlove. We can become "children of grace." We can repent. Through the mercy of God, forgiveness is possible. Change is possible.

In Advent we celebrate the coming of that change in the person of Jesus and the promise of God’s kingdom coming. Isaiah and John the Baptist prepare us to welcome Jesus and the change his coming promises. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Delight – Banana Slug Encounter

I have kind of a thing for banana slugs which are native to the redwood forests of the west coast. The second-largest species of terrestrial slug in the world, they are fascinating. One could hardly imagine a creature on land that is more alien to human existence.  Among other things, they are all hermaphroditic (male and female at once). They have bright yellow color, long, slimy bodies and leave a glistening, sticky trail behind them. But, in their way, they are beautiful and move with a slow-motion grace.

Several years ago, while on sabbatical, I enjoyed hiking around beautiful Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in Felton, California where I occasionally encountered banana slugs. One day I was sitting on the bank of the San Lorenzo River which runs through the park. I was enjoying the sound of the water below and the breeze rusting leaves above, delighting in the play of light through the trees and on the water, and the feel of sun and breeze on my skin. To my left I noticed a banana slug resting on the trunk of a tree.

As I sat admiring the slug, it occurred to me that we were encountering one another for just a moment in our respective lives. To be honest, I don’t know how aware the slug was of me. But, I recognized that just as I had been up to things before sharing this space and time with this particular slug and would eventually leave and get on with my human life, the slug had been living its slug life before our paths crossed and would continue after I left.

I wondered what the slug’s life was like. In what bodily pleasures did it delight? What pain had it experienced? Did it have desires and fears? I tried to imagine this slug enjoying the feel of sun or rain on its back, the taste of whatever food it enjoyed. I wondered what banana slug romance might be like. Then I thought, “Here we are in each other’s presence and I am wondering all these things about you–and I do not know your name." That was followed immediately by, "Ah, but, God does. Before and after our encounter, God was paying attention to you. God delights in your existence moment by moment."

At that point I had one of the handful of mystical-like experiences I have had in my life. I became acutely aware of my being intimately and inseparably connected with this particular banana slug and all other creatures. As a fellow creature participating in the wonder of life and held in the gaze of God’s delight, this slug and I were profoundly related to one another and to the trees and deer and fish and all else. 

Humans, created in the image of God and charged with stewardship of God’s creation, have a special place in that creation. But, it is imperative that we never forget that we are also part of that creation and all other creatures. We are related to everything because everything is related to God. The rest of creation is not there just of our use and consumption. Each other part of creation has its own integrity as the creature of God.  Every part of creation deserves our respect and reverence. And it requires our care – for its own sake as well as ours. 

God delights in the banana slug and as a fellow creature it is my sibling, not in the same way as is another human being, but my sibling just the same, and thus worthy of my delight, reverence, and gentle regard.

Learn more on banana slugs here:

Friday, November 25, 2016

Mercy - Small acts of mercy

In his novel, All Hallows’ Eve, Charles Williams has a scene in which a pompous and demanding woman is putting her daughter on the train.
Lady Wallingsford said, “Get in, Betty. You ride first class as far as Laughton, you know.” She added to a porter, “This part is for York?” The porter, having just called out, “Grantham, Doncaster, York,” exercised a glorious self-restraint, and said, Yes, lady.” He spoke perhaps from habit, but here habit was full of all its past and all its patience and its patience was the thunder of the passage of a god dominant, miraculous and yet recurrent. Golden-thighed Endurance, sun-shrouded Justice, were in him and his face was the deep confluence of the City [the New Jerusalem]. He said again, “Yes, lady,” and his voice was echoed in the recesses of the station and thrown out beyond it. It was held in the air and dropped, and some other phrase caught up and held. There was no smallest point in all the place that was not redeemed into beauty and good–except Lady Wallingsford’s eyes . . .

It is a bit overwrought perhaps, but I think he is onto something. If at the heart of everything is an All-merciful Love this might be what we should expect. If we are created to reflect and participate in that Love, every act of affection or mercy, however insignificant it might seem, reverberates with an awesome and eternal significance. In this case the porter’s seemingly small act of patience when he might have responded with some expression of exasperation. But, that small act of patience reverberated spiritually throughout the train station with beauty and goodness.

There are times when the grand gesture is called for – violence, injustice, falsehood to be resisted. But, everyday acts of mercy – patience, gentleness, kindness, peace-making, endurance, courage, forgiveness, forbearance, self-control, the sharp word or gesture withheld, speaking up on behalf of another – these are more important than we might think. Maybe, whether anyone else recognizes it or whether the one doing is even completely aware they have done it, every small act of mercy is celebrated in heaven.

Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found.  It is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.

In a world where rancor ricochets all around, maybe part of the Christian vocation is to be “shock-absorbers” practiced in defusing and deescalating. In a world grown callous and snarky, a world where the witty put-down is celebrated, the Christian vocation is to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15), with gentleness and revernce (1 Peter 3:15). This is what it means to “walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2). We are to be the fragranc of that sacrificial love..

As we have seen before in this series, this sounds nice, but is not easy. Dorothy Day reflected that being patient in little things takes a heroic virtue. In his book on forgiveness, Williams compares a life of patient endurance with the singular act of self-sacrificial martyrdom and suggests the former might actually be harder.

We are told the porter’s heroic act of patience and glorious restraint might have come from habit. By practice, with the Holy Spirit working in us, we can hope that day by day, moment by moment, we might develop the habit of doing our small part to keep the darkness at bay and see the world redeemed into beauty and good.

Here are some others who have said something similar:

Monday, November 21, 2016

Delight – Thanksgiving & Our Mutual Dependence

This Thursday is Thanksgiving in the USA.

“On Thanksgiving Day we acknowledge our dependence.”
~ William Jennings Bryan

One of my favorite prayers in the Book of Common Prayer is this one from the Order for Compline:

O God, your unfailing providence sustains the world we live in and the life we live: Watch over those, both night and day, who work while others sleep, and grant that we may never forget that our common life depends upon each other's toil; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Book of Common Prayer, p. 134

It is a reminder that the world in which we live, the lives we live – all that we are and all that we have – is all the sheer gift of God. It is not something we can seize or hold. We can only receive and give thanks. This receiving is not passive but rather an active attentiveness to each moment as the irreplaceable, intimate gift of God. We thank God who wonderfully created us and still more wonderfully redeems us. It is no accident that the central practice of the Church is the Eucharist the root meaning of which is “thanksgiving.”

The prayer from Compline is also a reminder that we are dependent on each other’s toil. The notion of an autonomous individual, rugged or otherwise, is a false one. It is fundamentally absurd. We are born into, and dependent upon from start to finish, a web of relationships. We always and only live at the hands of others. Part of the discipline of active, attentive gratitude is giving thanks for everyone else. Margaret Visser writes, “Gratitude is always a matter of paying attention, of deliberately beholding and appreciating the other” (Gratitude’s Grace Can Be Itself a Gift).

Thanksgiving is a good reminder to pay attention to our interdependence and appreciate others on whom we depend. So, this Thanksgiving, thank God for his unfailing sustaining providence. And thank all those other folk on whose toil your life depends. Thank family and friends. But also thank everyone who had a hand in making your Thanksgiving feast possible: those who planted, those who harvested, those who processed and packed, those who drove the trucks and those who loaded and unloaded the trucks, those who stocked the shelves and those who checked out the groceries. Thank the utility workers who make sure the power gets to your home – sometimes in inclement weather. And thank sister turkey and brother pig for the sacrifice of their lives for your enjoyment and nourishment. And thank all who participate in one way or another in the web of mutual dependence.

Of course, the third Thursday of November is but a particular, public reminder of our dependence on God and one another. We can seek an active attentive gratitude day in and day out. One way to do that is to end each day with an adaptation of the Jesus prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Thank you.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Thank you.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Thank you.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Thank you for ____________.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Thank you for ____________.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Thank you for ____________.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Mercy – Resolve to understand every person fully

A version of this post was already planned for today. It seems even more pertinent now. There has been a good deal of consternation following the recent Presidential election in the United States. One common refrain has been that the election has revealed just how deep and wide are the political/cultural divisions in America. We do not seem to understand one another. Often enough it seems we do not really care to understand one another. But this is not new. And it is not unique to America.

Brother Roger, the founder of the Taize Community in France, wrote this reflection about a decision he made as a young man in the wake of the hatred and violence of the 1930's and 40's:

When I was a young man, at a time when Europe was torn apart by so many conflicts, I kept on asking myself. Why all these confrontations? Why do so many people, even Christians, condemn one another out of hand? And I wondered, is there, on this earth, a way of reaching complete understanding of others?

Then came a day – I can still remember the date, and I could describe the place: the subdued light of a late summer evening, darkness settling over the countryside – a day when I made a decision. I said to myself, if this way exists, begin with yourself and resolve to understand every person fully. That day, I was certain the vow I made was for life. It involved nothing less than returning again and again, my whole life long, to this irrevocable decision: seek to understand all, rather than to be understood. 
– The Wonder of a Love

Resolve to understand every person fully. What might that look like? Here are three other quotes that I think begin to point the way:

If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes, that is to say, like artists, we must see not just their faces but the life behind and within their faces. Here it is love that is the frame we see them in.
– Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark

The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them.
– Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island

Peace will only begin to be possible when we try to do justice to the side with which we do not feel sympathy, and earnestly try to call up in our imagination the sorrows we have not suffered and the angers we do not feel.
– G. K. Chesterton, London Illustrate News June 25, 1932

This requires a degree of self-denial. Before I can see my neighbor, before I can love the other as they are, I need to get myself out of the way. I need to make peace with the discomforting challenge their difference presents to me. I need to let go of my own prejudices and convictions that incline me to interpret the other on my terms rather than on their terms. In order to give the other the benefit of the doubt, I need to be willing to doubt my own assumptions and certainties. I need to entertain the possibility that I am wrong and/or have something to learn from the other. I need to die to myself in order to make space for the other, to imaginatively get inside the other’s skin.

It might also mean that I need to take care how I think and talk about others, what I post on Facebook and Twitter about them. It is so tempting, isn't it, to assume the worst about those with whom we disagree or who we find it hard tro understand. It is easy to roll our eyes when they are mentioned. It is easy to jump to conclusions about them that are less than generous.

This does not mean that we give people a pass for words and actions that are hurtful or violent. It does not mean that in the end everyone is OK just the way they are. It does not mean we do not challenge one another. It does mean that before I can challenge another, I need to take care that I truly understand them as they understand themselves rather than how it is convenient and comfortable for me to understand them.

How might I commit to getting to know others as they understand themselves? Muslims? Evangelical Christians? Liberal Christians? People in the rural heartland? People in coastal cities? Gays, lesbians and transgendered? Conservatives? Liberals? Immigrants? The other person in front of me right now? It begins by learning the story they tell about themselves rather than resorting to the often more comforting stories others – particularly their opponents – tell about them. I can invite others who I find it hard to understand to tell their story and listen carefully, patiently, and non-defensively.

In my experience, this is much harder than it sounds.  But, with Brother Roger, I am convinced it is part of what it means to live into the way of mercy that is the cost of following Jesus. It means making this irrevocable decision: seek to understand all, rather than to be understood.

Related posts:

Monday, November 14, 2016

Delight – Expressing beauty in the everyday

Philosopher, Roger Scruton, writes that we can demonstrate delight and enact beauty in the everyday:

There is an aesthetic minimalism exemplified by laying the table, tidying your room, designing a web-site, which seems at first site quite remote from the aesthetic heroism exemplified by Bernini’s St Teresa in Ecstasy or Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. You don’t wrestle over these things as Beethoven wrestled over the late quartets, nor do you expect them to be recorded for all time among the triumphs of artistic achievement. Nevertheless, you want the table, the room or the web-site to look right, and looking right matters in the way that beauty generally matters—not by pleasing the eye only, but by conveying meanings and values which have weight for you and which you are consciously putting on display.
– Roger Scruton, Beauty: A Very Short Introduction, p. 9

How will you attend to the way of beauty today? How will convey meanings and values which have weight for you in your day to day activities and day to day encounters?

You can watch Scruton on beauty here: Why Beauty Matters